Literal Phrases Kids Misunderstand
Raining cats and dogs, and other misunderstood phrases.
One of my more favorite childhood memories we all love to retell is the time I misunderstood a popular phrase. It was Saturday and in my house when I was younger, that meant chore day. Back then, we didn’t have those handy daily tub and shower sprays we have now and our tub had a ring around it. It was my job that weekend to clean the bathroom, so I tackled the ring with not nearly as much enthusiasm as my father was hoping for.
He came into the bathroom to see how I was doing. Upon seeing my lack of progress, he told me to use some elbow grease and walked away. So what did I do? I stood up, walked to the closet, and began looking for the elbow grease.
Ten minutes later, my dad came back and was rather exasperated to see me clearly not scrubbing in the tub. He asked me what I thought I was doing in his pseudo-stern manner and when I told him I was looking for the elbow grease, he looked stunned, then just walked away.
Years later, I would find out why he walked away to laugh. Can’t say I blame him much. He came back moments later to explain the popular saying to me, clearly in disbelief that I had never heard of it before.
This brings me to the other morning here in the household. My dad, my daughter and I were enjoying a bit of brunch, when my dad and I started to reminisce about old tag phrases that are not really used anymore. I’m not really certain why we wanted to do that, other than clearly prove our advanced ages to my daughter.
One of the more popular one when I was growing up, was “Let your fingers do the walking," complete with two walking fingers for Yellow Pages. “Reach out and touch someone” for AT&T was also brought up and that led into a discussion about Ma Bell and the monopoly the company had for a while. We have very intellectual conversations during brunch.
The look on my daughters face stated clearly, she did not understand and so my dad asked, “Do you know what a monopoly is?” She replied, “A game.” And chuckles were shared by me father and I, before we explained the concept to my daughter, who later admitted she had been picturing telephone companies sitting around playing the board game.
Thinking back, this misunderstanding of literal catch phrases in our language has lead to a few good laughs over the years. Once someone said to me “Break a leg.” And my daughter got very upset. “I don’t want you to break your legs again!” A year or so before, I had broken both my legs at the same time, at work. Even after explaining the saying to her, she didn’t like it one bit. She’s a little more cheery about the phrase these days, but still always comments about the experience if she hears it.
There are some good ones in our language that must give children some good reasons to wonder what us adults are talking about. How about “It’s raining cats and dogs”? How many little kids run to the window when it’s pouring out and hope for a pet to come falling out of the sky?
I had mentioned once that a co-worker had "quit cold turkey." My daughter had no idea what that meant, but curious, she asked if ham would do the same thing. While both make excellent sandwiches, I explained to her that it meant stopping something suddenly, all at once. She was not impressed.
It’s been amusing watching kids learn the subtle nuances and phrases and words with multiple meanings, embedded within our language that help make it unique and difficult to understand, even for native speakers. Perhaps that is why we have such phrases - to keep kids of eight or nine on their feet, after they are just about confident they know how to speak our tongue.